> it’s time to stop DVR-ing the series and start watching it live. You’ll be happy you did, and you’ll be happy to return to the cultural conversation. Let’s bring a return of watercooler culture to the offices, chat rooms, and entertainment blogs of America. We’re not arguing for spoilers; we’re arguing against letting yourself get spoiled. Suck it up, America. Watch the damn shows.

[New York Magazine – Spoilers: In Defense of the American Watercooler](http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2008/03/spoilers.html)


No Comment

As you probably noticed, I’m playing about with the comments on my blog: disabling them for most new articles, unless I really, really want to hear what other people have to say. This sounds like a total dick move. “You’re suppressing debate!” Probably. I don’t really see it that way. The thing that kind of swung the no-comments move for me was something Merlin Mann said during his presentation with John Gruber at SXSW, when he recalled what John Gruber’s response when he asked him why he doesn’t enable comments on daringfireball.net:

… you were like ‘I wanna own every single pixel on my site, from the top left to the lower right. And if I have somebody come in — even if it’s somebody incredibly smart; even if it’s whoever; even if it’s SeoulBrother comes in and has something to say, like somebody really smart and really funny, like, it’s not my site any more.’.

Then Derek Powazek gave his own particular reasons for not enabling comments on his blog

I turned off comments in the last redesign of powazek.com because I needed a place online that was just for me. With comments on, when I sat down to write, I’d preemptively hear the comments I’d inevitably get. It made writing a chore, and eventually I stopped writing altogether. Turning comments off was like taking a weight off my shoulders. It freed me to write again.

This is what sold me. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but my blog output has gone up since disabling comments, exactly because I don’t feel like I have to think about every word I write. I can write bullshit like that thing about Before Sunset – stuff that I would have previously held back because I’d have visions of a random drive-by commenter calling me out on it, making me feel bad.

Update: I was having second thoughts about the no-comments thing. Over the past few days, people have been very pointedly asking me why I’ve disabled comments – who the fuck did I think I was, comparing myself to John Gruber? – so I was thinking maybe I should just turn them back on. That is, until I enabled the Daring Fireball with Comments extension for Safari yesterday. This is from a random article (click for the larger version):

See? It completely changes the mood of the site. This is exactly what I don’t want, so I think my comments will be staying off for the time being.


Great FAQ Answer

Real helpful. Thanks, Microsoft.

> **Q:Is there a maximum number of Points that I can have in my balance?**
> A: Yes, there is a limit. When you reach that limit, you will be notified that you’ve reached the maximum number.


Before Sunset, Rome Edition

Herself indoors was away for work last night, so I had the house to myself. What kind of wild and crazy shenanigans did I get up to? Did I throw an awesome party that will be remembered through the ages? Did I fuck. I watered the plants, put on Before Sunrise and sat down to do some ironing.

Woo! Being 31 is great!

If you don’t know this film, it’s about two people, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who meet on a train, realise they’ve got an immediate connection and decide to spend the night walking the streets of Vienna before Ethan Hawke has to fly home to America the next morning. Throughout the night, they keep coming across all sorts of interesting things, such as: late night fairs, palm readers, late night cafes, dive bars with pinball machines, churches that apparently stay open all night, bums that will write you a poem for some money. I’ll save my opinion of the actual film for another time (quick spoiler: thought it was a great film when I saw it in my early twenties; in my early thirties, however, I thought they were a pair of hateful douches). What I was thinking though is how I’d love to see that movie set in Rome. Because you know what’s open in Rome after midnight? You know what’s happening around this city once it gets dark?


Seriously. I really cannot believe it sometimes. Most bars close around 1am – except for the ‘social clubs’ – speakeasy-type joints that are well-hidden and very wary of strangers. You could go to the coked-out clubs in Testaccio, I suppose. They’re too busy snorting and preening to notice the time. But in general, after 2am, this city is a ghost town. A really sketchy ghost town. We used to have a McDonalds near us that would close at 10.30pm. 11.00pm on Saturday nights – as an Irish man who is used to his battered sausage and curry chips after a night in the pub, this was the most painful for me: there’s nowhere to get any kind food after the bars close.

Things are only worse during August. Already, a load of bars, restaurants and cinemas are already closed in anticipation of ferragosto – a month-long celebration of whateverthefuck. I honestly have no idea what’s being celebrated. I just know that the end result is that most Romans disappear off to the beach or somewhere less oppressively hot. Which has its benefits too. Sure, more things are closed and you have to think about what shops are still open when you want a pint of milk, but the lack of crowds means that the city is a much more pleasant place to be. Still, doesn’t help my initial point: there’s almost nothing to do in Rome after dark.

I’d really love to see Before Sunrise: Rome Edition. I bet it would be a real short film.


Mass Effect 2: Addendum

There’ll be some discussion of the ending of Mass Effect 2, so if you haven’t played that game all the way through and you like your life spoiler-free, stop reading now

After about 30 hours of playing, I finally, finally finished Mass Effect 2. And having finished it now, I’m still happy that pretty much everything I said about the game still stands. There were a couple of side-missions that were time-based: you have X number of minutes to escape from X or to stop X from happening, but these were still small, local instances, usually coming at the ends of missions. There was no sense of urgency to any the larger narrative. Take all the time you need; that person dying of space-flu or space-gonorrhoea or whatever in isn’t going anywhere. He’s in another mission. Sure, the galaxy needs saving, but – holy shit! – that Krogan hasn’t tasted sushi before. Better take care of that first!

Which is why the ending feels like such a cheap shot.

After being stung by some of my choices at the end of the first Mass Effect – where the game pulled a switcheroo and the person I actually wanted to save ended up being the person that died – I made sure that, for Mass Effect 2, I read up about the ending and what choices I should make if I wanted my characters to survive. Some might call this cheating. To this, I say: FUCK YOU. Including the first game, I’ll have spent around 60 hours playing as this character and I’m not going to leave this shit to chance again.

Anyway, the Gamefaqs entry for Mass Effect 2 includes this little warning:


When you return to the Normandy, you will have the ability to go through the Omega 4 relay in pursuit of the Collector ship. If you go on any other missions first, half the Normandy’s crew will be killed, including Yeoman Chambers.

Now, I wasn’t affected by this because, like I said, there were almost no side-missions left by the time I came to travelling through the Omega 4 relay. But still, I feel like this is unnecessarily punitive, especially since that the developers have established one rule throughout the game: that you can delay and it doesn’t matter. Why the abrupt change? Why punish players like this? Why Yeoman Chambers?!

For the record (and as I mentioned on Twitter), immediately after saving the galaxy, I jumped straight in and did the dirt on Miranda. Commander Shepard: space mutt



Another thing Emmett said that got me thinking was this:

Probably these developers know something I don’t. Probably they know that their market already understands the conventions of this world, and that eventually, and through repetition, anything that deviates from these conventions seems somehow false. (I suspect that this might be what Tom means when he mentions games literacy.) But for me, this time at least, it never stopped feeling like a videogame.

This is a criticism I hear a lot – that playing videogames presupposes a certain amount of knowledge. The reason I hear it a lot is because my wife is so unfamiliar with videogame conventions. So much that she’s a terrific litmus test for the accessibility of a particular game. Give me a joypad and my hands instinctively fall into a familiar grip. After a short while, I’ll be accustomed to the controls of a game that there will be almost no barrier between what I want to do and what I can make the game do. The controls will disappear for me, allowing me to fully immerse myself in the game. For my wife, the controls are always present. She isn’t familiar with the joypad, so when the game tells her to “Press X to open”, she has to actively think about where button X is. It will never not be a game for her. Years of experience has taught me that, almost universally, “X” (or “bottom button”) means “Okay” and “O” (or “right button”) means “Cancel”. I’ve been doing this for so long that I don’t even think about it now. For my wife, this is still a strange concept even though she uses these buttons every day to watch movies and TV through our Xbox.

Within the game worlds themselves, there are also conventions that might only be immediately obvious to someone who is familiar with games and has been playing them for a substantial amount of time. For example, the near-ubiquitous red barrel has an obvious meaning to gamers: kick-ass explosions. Wooden crates can be smashed open to potentially give you some amazing loot. In most games, the double-jump has no grounding in either the narrative or the physics of the world – I mean, what the fuck is that? Someone can ‘jump’ again in mid-air to go even higher? Seriously? – but this is something I almost expect when I’m playing a platform game. When it isn’t present, I feel like something is missing. Giant Bomb has helpfully put together a fairly comprehensive list of the most common videogame conventions so that we don’t have to go through them all here.

And so it’s not so much the fact that these conventions exist that bother me, but more the fact that this is used as a stick to beat videogames as a medium. A typical conversation when we try to play games together:
“How did you know you could open that door but not the door beside it?”
“It’s obvious!”
“Not to me!”
“Well, because 25 years of playing videogames has taught me which doors can be opened and which can’t.”
“You see?! This is why I can’t play videogames!”

Here’s where I’m in danger of sounding like a snob, but my answer to this is: so learn, get used to it.Or, to put it in more Xbox Live-friendly terms: have you considered sucking less?

You’re reading my blog, so I’m guessing that you’re probably a middle-to-upper class white male with at least a secondary school educationand your name is probably Steve, Bob or Gar. You probably spend a fair portion of your spare time reading – I mean, no-one’s paying you to read this so, if nothing else, I’m probably right with this assumption. Now, just think about the conventions of reading. We take it for granted, but this, too, presupposes a whole bunch of stuff. Obviously, you have to be familiar with the language, you have to be familiar with the form of the letters, the spellings of words. You have to understand the process of reading (in English, at least) from left-to-right, then top-to-bottom. These are the literary analogues to videogame control conventions, “X means ‘okay’”.

Once you actually master the mechanics of it, there are also conventions used in literature and reading. Right now I’m reading David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System. To read this properly, to understand it and convert it from just words on a page to ideas and concepts, it helps to be familiar with, among other things, the logic of metafiction and the various philosophical theories of language including, but not limited to, the theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The first time I read Thomas Pynchon’s V, I was completely unfamiliar with metafiction, and I had a hard time reading that book. Just as the game never stopped being a videogame for Emmett, V never stopped being a book for me. I was reading at such a cripplingly slow pace that it took me forever, which meant I never really developed a ‘flow’. I was always completely conscious of the process of writing that made up this book. I didn’t enjoy it. Because I wasn’t immersed in the subject of the work, I was very aware of the form of the work, I was aware of the author’s ‘tricks’. It’s like my wife playing a game, the controller/book never disappeared for meMy second read-trough, after more exposure to the genre of metafiction, more exposure to Pynchon’s work, was much more successful. I don’t think anyone would accuse the book of being at fault here. I was unfamiliar with the genre, and I was punching above my weight. I knew that. I accepted that.

I guess this is made worse with games because they are all rules, they’re all convention. I recently played a game of Carcassonne with my wife, and the rules never once disappeared into the background because we constantly had to think about what we were doing. Our first game of Dungeons & Dragons was quickly disbanded after we said “fuck this” because we couldn’t figure out what the various numbers meant or how we were meant to calculate things. In none of these cases did we blame the game’s rules, we blamed ourselves for not knowing themThis is a lie, we totally blamed the D&D rules. Christ, even their “beginner’s guide” is written with the assumption you were playing D&D in the womb. In videogame terms, I have little experience of Japanese RPGs. As a result, I don’t enjoy playing them. Their rules are so transparent that I feel like I’m watching an Excel spreadsheet with fancy graphics. At the same time, I’m unfamiliar with their conventions. Do you know how long it took me to wrap my head around the concept of ‘grinding’My enjoyment of Dragon Quest VIII increased immeasurably once I copped to this? These games never stop being ‘games’ for me. I’m never immersed.

But still, what should be done? What should I do when I’m having trouble reading a book like V? Well, I should read other books. Books that are more at my reading-level. Slowly build myself up my familiarity with literary conventions so that I could enjoy the book properly. You wouldn’t expect a teenager coming straight off Twilight (for example) to be able to pick up and enjoy Ulysses (again, for example), so I don’t see why you’d expect someone completely unfamiliar with modern videogames to be able to enjoy them properly either.

So the question is, why blame the game?